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82. What’s it For?

10/11/2013

In part 80, we looked at how the Scout may have been thought up and authorised. I put forward the theory that the fast single-seater was originally a military specification against which Geoffrey de Havilland designed the B.S.1, later to become the S.E.2, but it’s worth exploring this in a little more detail.

Most aircraft at that time were designed as two-seaters, whether for military or civil use; clearly since piloting was such a rare skill – and took so much concentration – it was a good idea to be able to take someone else up, either to help pay for the flight, or to carry out observation or other tasks.

Design work on the B.S.1/S.E.2 was started in 1912, and resulted in a biplane with a very advanced monocoque plywood fuselage and wing warping for roll control, and it was flown by de Havilland in February 1913. With a 100hp engine, it reached 91.7mph and a climb rate of 900ft/min. After an accident which required repairs and modifications, including the fitting of an 80hp engine, it was redesignated S.E.2 (Scout Experimental) and flown in October 1913.

The RAF S.E.2 at the time Barnwell started designing the Scout. Note the monocoque plywood fuselage and the nicely faired cowling. Roll control was by wing warping, which was less effective than ailerons.
The RAF S.E.2 at the time Barnwell started designing the Scout. Note the monocoque plywood fuselage and the nicely faired cowling. Roll control was by wing warping, which was less effective than ailerons.

There was certainly interest in the idea of a very fast single seater aircraft, though top speed was usually limited by the fact that the aircraft had to be capable of flying sufficiently slowly to land on pretty rough grass airfields, and the S.E.2’s minimum speed of 51mph was definitely on the fast side.

At any rate, Sopwith took up the idea with the diminutive Sopwith Tabloid (so called because of its small size, like a tabloid newspaper) which, even with two side-by-side seats, reached 92mph and a rate of climb of 1200ft/min. The Tabloid wasn’t flown until November 1913, so it seems unlikely that it had much influence on B&CA’s decision to build the Scout, but it’s possible that Barnwell took note of its performance in the design. Like the S.E.2, it used wing warping for roll control.

The Sopwith Tabloid preserved at hte RAF Museum, Hendon
The Sopwith Tabloid replica at the RAF Museum, Hendon

The name Scout is clearly indicative that they had the military in mind, but it wasn’t produced directly in response to the specification that generated the S.E.2, and was paid for entirely by B&CA. But there was also a great deal of interest in air racing, and it seems likely that they had this in mind as well, though it seems unlikely that anybody thought they would recoup their investment by selling the Scout to competition pilots.

Nevertheless, the B&CA wasn’t founded primarily to make money. Sir George White started the company owing to his concern about Britain’s ability to defend itself from attack by air, and an aircraft capable of meeting the 1912 requirement for a single-seat Scout makes more sense when seen in that light. You can read more here.

It’s worth exploring the armament issue too, since it’s often said that the reason the Scout didn’t make it into the big time was its lack of armament. Conventional wisdom has it that the military hadn’t foreseen the need for armed aircraft prior to WWI, but this isn’t entirely true; Vickers had produced the E.F.B.1 to an Admiralty specification placed a year before, in November 1912, flown in February 1913. It crashed on its first flight, and its replacement, E.F.B.2, was flown 100 years ago, in November 1914. It was a pusher biplane with a single machine gun (initially a Vickers and later a Lewis) right in the nose operated by an observer, and was specifically intended for air-to-air combat. And it wasn’t the first; the French Voisin company had produced the ‘Type Militaire’  in 1910 with a similar pusher configuration on a single seater, the pilot being expected to operate something that wouldn’t look out of place on a battleship on a swivel mounting.

Voisin Type Militaire at the 1910 Paris Exhibition. It looks as if the recoil from the gun would have shaken the aircraft to pieces or stopped it in its tracks!
Voisin Type Militaire at the 1910 Paris Exhibition. It looks as if the recoil from the gun would have shaken the aircraft to pieces or stopped it in its tracks!

But without any way of safely firing through the propeller, designers were forced to use the pusher configuration which was necessarily much less streamlined than a tractor machine, and hence slower and less manoeuvrable.

As we know, pilots soon found ways round this conundrum, either by pointing the machine gun obliquely or by mounting it on the top wing, or (as in Granddad’s case) just firing it through the propeller and hoping for the best. But I guess you couldn’t design an aircraft from the outset with those limitations, and – particularly if your immediate aim was to go air racing – perhaps it was felt best to leave the problem of armament until later.

At any rate, about this time 100 years ago, Barnwell, possibly with Busteed’s ideas on the back of an envelope, sat down in 4 Fairlawn Avenue and tried to design the smallest, lightest single seater possible.

He would have had the performance of the S.E.2 in mind as a benchmark, with the Tabloid to add a bit of pressure when it was flown in November. He will also have had access to the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2b, which was being manufactured in some numbers by the main Bristol Factory at Filton.

The BE2b, which was manufactured at he main B&CA works at Filton, and which Barnwell would have had access to during the design process
The BE2b, which was manufactured at the main B&CA works at Filton, and which Barnwell would have had access to during the design process.

A close look at the B.E.2B at the RAF Museum has shown the possibility that Barnwell might have got some details from a trip round the Filton works, though it’s hard to be 100% definite about this.

Finally, there’s the possibility of a spare fuselage going begging. The project was originally given the serial number 183, which had originally been allocated to the Coandă SB5 single-seat monoplane intended for the Italian military.

Bristol-Coanda two-seat Military monoplane from which the SB5 was developed. You can see the framework for the four-wheeled undercarriage.
Bristol-Coanda two-seat Military monoplane from which the SB5 was developed. You can see the framework for the four-wheeled undercarriage.

The fuselage had been part completed when the contract fell through about this time 100 years ago, and it’s sometimes supposed Barnwell started with this, and though there are no photographs of it, the two-seat military monoplane from which it was derived had a four-wheeled undercarriage typical of Coandă and if he had re-used it, there would have been no need to redraw it from scratch, which – as we’ll see in December – is what actually happened.

Although the first sketches are dated December, he will have spent much of November looking at all the competition and trying to decide which features to incorporate.

If he used the S.E.2 as the design basis, Barnwell took a pretty confident step up in trying to ensure high speed. The Scout’s wings were a full 1.5m (5 ft) shorter and narrower too, and he elected to use ailerons rather than wing warping for roll control. This should help to reduce drag, but there was the possibility that, like the S.E.2 its minimum speed might be too fast for normal use on rough fields. He also elected to dispense with the skids at the front which were a very common feature on most aircraft, including the S.E.2, the B.E.2, and the Tabloid. They were useful in reducing the number of noseover accidents on landing, but increased weight and drag.

The structure (unlike the S.E.2) was entirely conventional, which may indicate a desire to keep the costs within bounds, since there was no guarantee of a buyer, even if it flew successfully.

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